TOEFL iBT Skills - Note-taking

Effective note-taking is an essential skill, not only on the TOEFL, but also in academic life. Remember, just because you understand something, doesn't mean you will remember it. You need to write it down, especially when the information being given is extensive or complex.

In colleges and universities, professors expand orally on the written material provided in textbooks and expect you to record and remember that information, for the sake of knowledge and future tests. Since this key skill is needed each day in the lecture room, it's best to develop effective strategies early on, while preparing for the TOEFL.

All sections of the TOEFL require some degree of note-taking:

  1. 1. listening and writing – to a greater extent

  2. 2. reading and speaking – to a lesser extent

Without learning how to note down and organize the information you are receiving, you will not be able to give an effective response or choose the correct answer. However, once you master this skill, you will discover how easy it becomes to answer questions correctly and/or comprehensively.

As a second language learner, there are a number of special challenges you face when taking notes.

First, you must understand what the professor is talking about. This covers three points: being able to hear, to understand his / her accent and to keep up with the pace of the lecture. Luckily, in spoken English, there tends to be more repetition and review than in writing. This gives you time and opportunity to note down the key points, even if you don't know the meaning of every word.

Second, you must have an effective note-taking system which enables you to identify, record, and organize the main ideas and facts presented in the lecture. You will also need to know how to anticipate purpose, notice verbal cues, use abbreviations and symbols, connect relationships, compare and contrast, cause and effect. There are many such systems, which will be explained below. You will also need to learn or develop your own shorthand for commonly used expressions, to save time.

Third, you need to utilize your notes to reconstruct the message of the lecture. This may include being able to write an essay based on your notes, answer multiple-choice questions, or deliver a short spoken response.

Today, most universities and study skill centres recommend that you move away from the passive idea of taking notes to the more active perspective of making notes. A number of sub-skills are involved here: intellectual and graphic.

Intellectual note-making skills include the following: to anticipate purpose, notice verbal cues, use abbreviations and symbols, connect relationships, compare and contrast, identify cause and effect, find the problem and solution, classify groups, define terms, and record sequence.

Graphics note-making skills refer to the specific format or style you decide to adopt. This may vary depending on your learning style, your purpose, and your habits. Some options are: column form, Cornell method, paragraph form, concept map, mind map, Venn diagram, outline form and many others. An excellent book which explains how to make effective notes in almost any subject is Tools for Thought by Jim Burke. The ideas covered in his book will help you to organize your material, remember more easily and  think more effectively - well beyond the TOEFL exam - into your academic and professional life.

Some note-taking techniques are also explained in various TOEFL preparation guidebooks. For example, Barron's TOEFL iBT devotes an entire section to a number of academic skills required on the exam, including note taking, and also paraphrasing, summarizing and synthesizing. Other books, such as Learn to Listen - Listen to Learn by Roni S. Lebauer provide extensive and focused practice on listening and note-taking throughout the book. This resource is highly recommended for those students who find themselves struggling and lost due to weak listening skills.

Of course, the best way to know which method to use is to experiment with various styles and see what is easiest and most comfortable for you. You can practice even while listening to the daily news.

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